guest post by Yoga Buzz teacher training graduate, Aria Accalia.
A concussion is an injury to the brain that results in temporary loss of normal brain function.
The formal medical definition of concussion is a clinical syndrome characterized by immediate and transient alteration in brain function, including alteration of mental status and level of consciousness, resulting from mechanical force or trauma.
Take a full, deep inhale, a complete exhale, and reread the lines above.
Okay. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons does a great job providing a clinical definition of the traumatic brain injury known commonly as “a concussion.” What they don’t tell you, and never could, are the profound and life-changing effects that such trauma can have on its sufferers and those around them. Or about the new, profound, and life-changing healing that can unfold through yoga—even for an experienced, long-time practitioner.
On April 24, 2016, I taught a yoga class, practiced yoga, and then left my workplace to get some much-needed food to fuel my afternoon—more teaching, possibly a long walk outside with my partner, and our usual evening ritual of dinner and hanging out talking about our upcoming plans to move in together, work together, make a future together. I had just gotten word the day before that I would be joining the Fall 2016 Yoga Buzz teacher training, furthering my yoga career education, so we had something to celebrate.
That evening didn’t go quite as planned. As I was driving down Highway 40 to the store, I was hit from behind, pushed into a car in front of me, and bounced back into the car that hit me. I remember feeling like I “woke up” to horns honking and a car that wouldn’t move. I got the car moving, called police, went through the usual things one does after an accident. I felt shaken and sore, but nothing was broken or bleeding, so I went on with my day as best I could.
The next day, I felt uncharacteristically low—a kind of depression I had not felt in years, if ever– but chalked it up to dealing with the stress of a wrecked car and the pain and stiffness along my entire spine. My head was pounding, but I drank some green juice and prepared to teach my afternoon class.
About 15 minutes in to teaching that class, I was leaning against the wall, dizzy. At 25 minutes in, I sat on the floor and continued to instruct students, periodically noticing a few of them shooting concerned glances my way. Some time later, I looked around, and thought, “Who are all these people, and why am I here?” I recovered quickly enough to realize that I needed to finish class and get to an emergency room.
The hospital visit was fairly uneventful. Everyone kept asking me if I had lost consciousness, and I guessed the answer was “yes,” because I couldn’t remember. After many hours and tests, the verdict was that I had suffered a concussion, but no hemorrhaging. I didn’t receive any instruction on what to do or what may happen next, save being told that my years of yoga practice had given me a great range of motion that likely saved me from a much more serious neck injury, and to expect some dizziness and confusion for up to a couple weeks.
Those couple of weeks were interesting. I felt consistently drunk, but not unpleasantly so. I was, to put it bluntly, stupid. I forgot words, laughed at inappropriate times, was uncharacteristically clumsy. I forgot the names of friends and students I had known for years. I was tired, made several messes due to clumsiness, but laughed at it all, thinking it would all soon go away. Reading and writing felt impossible, and Netflix gave me a headache. I took lots of walks and practiced gentle yoga. After a couple weeks, I still didn’t feel in any way normal, but decided I needed to get on with my life.
I didn’t feel like myself—I felt like an alien had possessed my body and mind.
Every day, however, brought a new, unwelcome surprise. My memory and cognition got worse, not better. I became unable to remember words and often had trouble stringing together a coherent sentence. My physical energy waxed and waned. I had terrifying moments of looking at my partner and seeing a stranger instead. “What if this is permanent?” I asked him one day as we walked through the park. “It’s not,” he said. But as weeks went on, I questioned his faith. I didn’t feel like myself—I felt like an alien had possessed my body and mind. I couldn’t go anywhere without getting impossibly lost, and I had no concept of what day or even what year it was. Then, one day in May, I had my first anger outburst. It was over something about which I felt deeply and personally insulted, but in retrospect was completely irrational. I screamed, I said horrible and unkind things, I broke an iPhone with my bare hands. It lasted into the night, and as abruptly as it had come on, it ended, with me explaining that I barely remembered any of it, and what I did remember felt like something I watched in a movie. We sought more specialized treatment, and that was when I was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
This frightening experience continued for several months—severely-altered personality, anger, despair, depression, a sometimes physical inability to even move. It worsened to episodes of self-injury–banging my head against things, stabbing myself with pens or keys or anything I could find, and a suicide attempt. I had brief moments of clarity where I wondered how I could feel so different, so lost, so possessed, but the lucid hours, the appearances of the “real me,” were few and far between. We continued to seek out and try every kind of therapy we could, putting my healing first, and I spent most of the year getting treatments and trying to recover. We blew through savings, cashed out investments, maxed out credit cards, and finally — finally — began to find things that would help.
Throughout all of this, very few things felt stable or constant. I lost empathy for myself and others; old friends felt like strangers, and even my little dogs were unable to spark inside me the same feeling of love they had for nearly eight years. I had no interest in reading (from 3-4 books a week, to absolutely no interest or ability to finish a page) or writing. Even my relationship with my partner, which had been one of my most stable “safe places,” felt strained as a result of my trauma and his second-hand trauma, as he experienced everything with me, albeit in a different way.
I went to yoga. Some days in class, I sat in child’s pose and cried. Some days, I felt like I could fly.
The only thing I consistently maintained was my yoga practice. Even if it was the absolute only thing I did that day, I went. Even if it meant I had no drive to prepare my food, take a shower, or hug my partner, I went to yoga. Some days in class, I sat in child’s pose and cried. Some days, I felt like I could fly. One time, I went to a new teacher who asked the requisite “any injuries?” and I explained that I would not be doing headstands because of my head and neck injury. “Oh my gosh, why are you here?” she asked. “Why wouldn’t I be here?” I thought to myself.
My relationship with the world, with my friends, my partner, my dogs, and most importantly, to myself, had been altered so much that I felt on the verge of a complete breakdown. Yoga was my one connection, my lifeline, to the “me” I had known, the life that was recognizable as mine. It was one thing with which I had a nearly-17-year-old history, the one thing I always turned to in times of sadness or stress, the thing that I always told myself could never be taken away from me. So I went. And kept going.
When August came and my yoga teacher training began, I questioned whether I would be able to make it. Through the urging of first my partner, and then my fellow teacher trainees, I kept going. It was mentally, socially, and emotionally challenging, often feeling impossible, and several times I was ready to give up. I found myself emotionally raw and completely exhausted. But still, I kept going. I knew inside that as difficult as it felt, the timing had been perfect. I learned how to be a trauma-informed yoga teacher as I worked through my very own traumatic experience. Still, I wondered if I would ever be my old self again.
One day during my own practice, I decided that just once, I didn’t need to try to move my neck in a way that it didn’t want to move just because I used to move it that way before the accident. The sky didn’t fall, the posture wasn’t “wrong” or ugly, and rather than thinking I failed, I thought, Yoga meets you wherever you are. I suddenly realized that I had spent my life beating myself up with perfectionism, but that without my mind and heart, my body was just a thing—an empty vessel that could be pretty or perfect or completely still in a photo-quality asana, and still be empty without that mind and heart and personality. And that became the lesson I tried to teach myself and others every single day.
A Hard-Learned Lesson
Yoga meets you wherever you are—whether that is somewhere different from yesterday, somewhere high or low, somewhere completely lost and terrified and confused. As I learned about myself, my perception of the world, my relationships with those around me, and yoga’s impact on my healing, I grew as a teacher. I grew to understand yoga as something very different than I had ever thought it could be.
even when it feels like all is lost, journey within — yoga will meet you wherever you are
Every person who walks into a yoga class has layers upon layers of stories and experiences and beliefs. These frames of reference will shape their yoga experience, probably (especially at first) even more so than the yoga itself, the teacher, the other students, or the words said in class. Something that I keep learning as a teacher is that even if I know a student, even if they share a lot of information with me, I can never know as intimately as
they do their frames of reference and therefore experience a class the same way they do. All I can do is my best to create a class that will speak to everyone in a positive way, teach a lesson, open a thought process, or help alleviate stress.
In all honesty, I still do not feel like my old self. In some ways, the “me”
I am today feels better than the old me, but in many ways, I still have much healing and readjustment ahead of me. Yoga—both teaching and practicing—is still a consistent part of my life, and as painful as it is, I share my story with anyone willing to listen, hoping I can help, offer hope, or pass along a valuable message: even when it feels like all is lost, journey within — yoga will meet you wherever you are.